Saturday, 9 June 2012

IATTOUR May 6-May 28 Portugal Part 1 and 2 (republished)

And...another update with photos:

Not much to say for our first day in Lisboa, the skies opened and it rained...hard!  We opted for trying to see a few of the sights on one of the hop on/off buses and proved moderately least we stayed mostly dry.  

From what we saw, this is a lovely city.  The old section of town has great walking strands with loads of sidewalk cafes, would have been nice if a gale had not been blowing.  


The "Hop On Hop Off" Tour was a bit "flooded" so we found a little hole in the wall cafe near the Mercado, not too sure what we were eating but it was hot and we were cold.  Our umbrella's were little match for the torrents, so we put them away and just got wet.  Our newly arrived travelling companions (Mina and Diane) were looking forward to an early evening, so we found a local restaurant around the corner from our hotel to grab an early was still raining.  

But one last thing to do was to take the Funicular to the top of the hill and have a look and would be great on a nice sunny day, perhaps on our return in 4 weeks.

Our plan the next day was to get an early start with a trip to the historic town of Sintra on way up to Porto. Leaving town in a heavy rain with thick fog made driving on the roads a bit stressful in the morning rush hour.  Portuguese drivers have a bit of a reputation of being  overly agressive, hence the country has one of the worst safe driver stats in the EU...remember those defensive driving skills...nah just be better.

Sintra is a bit of a fairly land community not far from Lisboa, with a number of medieval hill top castles, museums, and lots of other touristy things to see.  We spent most of the time at one of the king's palaces and gardens...not to miss.  

In order to get up to Porto at a reasonable hour we had to cut our visit a bit short...(Tony's prodding), as we still had about a 3.5 hour drive to navigate on the motorway then find our apartment in Porto.  The drive up was uneventful, but we figured out the toll charge rationale: 1 hour shorter drive= $10 euro toll=the amount of extra fuel you would burn.  So by taking the motorway the drive was 3.5 hours instead of 5.5 hours and cost about $22 euros in tolls.

We only got lost a little bit going into Porto after plunking the GPS address in, missed the most significant detail, the apartment was in  Villa Nova do Gaia not Porto.  

Once that was sorted we found our accommodation no problem.  Our hostess Sonia was the proprietor of a wine shop in the building her family owned and where the apartment(s) were situated upstairs.  The location could not have been more central and--it turned out to be the most comfortable side of the river for our "base camp" as it was a short stroll over the Ponte Luis I bridge to Porto.  The apartment was actually two separate units, with one a separate bedroom/bath, then the main suite with the second bedroom and kitchen-living room on the upper floor.  We had a view of the Douro River with all the activity one the shore along the banks..a feast for the eyes.  

Honestly, what is not to like about an apartment that comes with its own ground level port shop and built in guide (Sonia)?  Every morning we had another question or two saved up for her.

This base camp left Tony (who earned a medal for traveling with 3 women) free to hang out and read while Diane, Mina and I explored the shops and byways.  On our first trip out, Mina scored some excellent reading glasses (5 Euros) and we found a delightful little free art show/grotto garden (try as we might, we couldn't figure out how to pick an orange though).  Even better, each weekend, an artesane's market was set up along the riverbank directly in front of us.  We never tired of looking at all the pretty things and talking to the craftspeople.  

Our next trip was to check out Mina's future hike --starting with the end post--the Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain on the "Santiago del Camino" .  Imagine our surprise when we discovered many other tourists doing the same--the sweaty disheveled types were few and easy to pick out on the large cobbled square in front of the church.  

Mina completes her walk

The pilgrammage church itself, was splendid, dark and heavy with ornate gold lacquered wood.  We slipped in to have a look at the "tomb of James" and to wonder at the millennium of pilgrims who had worn the grooves in the marble steps.  As we walked down where the Camino runs through the town we spotted the symbolic scallops and waypoint signs.  After a great lunch in a nearby restaurant and a stop to look for T-shirts (I walked the Camino)/cufflinks, we were on our way back to home base with more questions for Sonia

Cat comfort station, V Nov

The local beach on the south side of the Duoro extended downcoast at least 15km, with a boardwalk and paved strand running the length.  We watched local skin divers on the shore diving for octopus.  Another brilliant sunny day complete with the requisite stop for cappachino along the way.

With such an easy walk to the "other side", we visited Porto often.  After one adventure, taking in our "COD"(church of the day) and various shops (ceramics/tablecloths/art supplies) we decided it was time to venture out on a Druro cruise.  A pleasant and short adventure on the boat took us out to the mouth of the river and up to the 6th bridge and back.  We were surprised to see how "lop-sided" the development was--housing on the Oporto side and masses of port storage on the Villa Nova do Giia side. 

A trip upcoast to the coastal town of Ville do Conde was a good day trip to explore the old Roman ruins; it was also the site of the final futbol match of the year between the home town and FC way was a ticket available as this town is only a 1/2 hour drive from Porto.  We strolled the streets, beaches and had a brilliant lunch at a harbourside bistro..tres elegant!

We found out that there was to be a big celebration in the main square tonight for the league champions FC Porto.  We arrived about an hour before the scheduled arrival of the  team at 10pm amidst the throngs of supporters reveling with all the various team paraphernalia.  Diane and Mina each purchased the requisite Porto scarf to wave and we waited patiently;  10pm came and went with no sign of the team.  We bolstered our spirits with a gelato break and then waited some more.  Things were heating up as a bus drove by with revelers dancing on the rooftop.  We hung in to 11pm them started wandering slowly back to the flat...we turned on the TV on our return 40 minutes later and the team had just put in an appearance.

Next day was Mina's last with us, so for a memorable occasion, V N de Giai pulled out all the stops.  After an excellent shopping morning, we returned to find a Portuguese festival at the museum next door.  Costumes, music, displays and goodies--we were hooked!  The dancers happily chatted about national costumes and handiwork while we went back for piece after piece of the delicious "pumpkin cake-like slice".  A great way for Mina to say goodbye to Porto.

Dancers looking out at the Duoro River

Mina headed off to Lisboa on the noon train.  Elaine and Diane continued shopping for stylish clothing and other memento's to bring home.  Later that afternoon, in the lowering sun we brought a bottle of chilled white Port and some nibblies down to the shore to enjoy the ambiance.
Motorcycle to Fatima processions traversed the street in front of our apartment never a dull moment!

Morning walks then Cappacino or an Americano and a croissant.

A great out-trip was to Braga for the day.  We asked Sonia for clarification re: the costumes on travelers (black suits with capes covered with crazy badges--possible guides?).  She said--lots of University students in their colours celebrating the end of the year.  The town has a great central square and one of the oldest cathedrals in Portugal.

Finally, we had our slot at the rock art site so we were off to the Duoro Valley to visit the motherland of all things Port and visit the UNESCO Heritage site of Foz do Coa (to view neolithic rock art).  Along the way we stopped for a riverside picnic along with the fresh cherry's picked up from the road side stand.  We managed to explore a few of the hilltop towns and take in one of the premier Port vineyards along one of the many valley's we was a great afternoon.

After checking into our hotel in a nearby town close to Vaila do Coa's various neolithic sites and the museum, we headed to our rendezvous location before dinner to scout out our morning's early meet with the guide.  In the town there were not many signs indicating a meeting location, so we tried to ask this elderly woman...she immediately began protesting nao Engleis...and started shouting at the top of her lungs for some help from an nearby building.  Out of the building emerged a 35ish year old guy who spoke excellent English. He invited us up to his office to make some inquiries and call one of the park administrators (on speed dial)...turns out he was the Mayor and the elderly woman had interrupted a council meeting...He was very that's how you make a good impression of your small town.
The next day, we met our guide at the appointed location and all 8 participants  piled into the Land-Cruiser for the 10 km bumpy ride to the trail head of the park.  It was a spectacular day, and the valley where the engravings were located was worth the walk even without the engravings.  Along the interpretive walk our guide described the different styles of etchings and related that mysteriously no horse bones have been found at any of the sights despite an abundance of imagery.  There are 3 open sites and at least 9 more under excavation.  The valley itself is so lush and beautiful (including sugar cane and lake fish) that it is easy to imagine ancient peoples settling here.
A possible sign-post for ancient pathways?

The museum in Foz do Coa was definitely worth a trip--full of imagery from the sites, reconstructions and even a "create your own petroglyph" which we emailed back to ourselves.  

We were fascinated by a site called "Canada do Inferno".  (We later discovered this means "place of the cane break in the fire".)  Oh there is so much more to Portugal than we had imagined.  

We can hardly wait to see Evora, the Algarve and spend more time in Lisbon!

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